If we analyze a swimmer’s performance, whether a sprinter or a distance athlete there are two phases which require a certain level of ankle dorsiflexion.
The block start (or from the wall in the case of backstroke) and the turn. It is very clear how much of an impact these two phases can have on a swimmer’s final result. Furthermore, we should not forget the importance for a breaststroker on having access to this range of motion, as it enables an efficient kick and guarantees optimal propulsion.
Too often coaches make the mistake of attributing a poor level of coordination to an athlete’s inability to perform a motor task. You will see athletes performing hundreds of technical drills without getting any results. In the worst case, the coach may think the athlete is not talented enough, but the reality is that you can’t move what you can’t move. The cause is often right under your eyes and represents the foundation of our movements: the mobility.
First of all, it’s extremely important in daily activities like walking or climbing stairs. It seems like both activities require between 10 and 25 degrees of dorsiflexion depending on the phase.
Secondly, a swimmer’s preparation includes dryland exercises in the gym which can be affected negatively by a limited dorsiflexion. Lunges, squat variations, jump exercises are all potentially dangerous movements if you are not prepared to do them. A deep squat, below parallel, can require 35 degrees of dorsiflexion.
After an initial assessment, if in the case your range of motion is limited, the second step is to create that range.
Here a list of exercises which may help you in the event your ankle dorsiflexion is limited:
Roll beneath your foot and massage up and down the length of your calf for about two minutes pausing if you hit a tender spot and performing active dorsiflexion and ankle circles. A massage stick is great too for this purpose. Always perform active movements afterwards.
Self massage with Ball
Self massage with Foam Roller
Get into a push up position and place one foot on top of the stretched leg. Then start to rock your heel up and down keeping your toe pointed forward and your knee extended. Your target is to move the heel as close as possible to the floor. For some, the push up position might be hard. Consider performing the movement with your hands on a bench or box.
Place a dowel next to your second and third toe. Then dorsiflex your ankle, moving your knee as far as possible in front and outside the dowel. Keep the whole foot in contact with the floor and maintain a good posture.
One of my favorite drills, since we start to load the dorsiflexion in a closed-kinetic chain movement. From the half kneeling position place one foot at about 45 degrees from the knee with your toe pointed out. Move your knee as far as possible following a straight line which passes through your second and third toe. Do not raise your heel and remain as tall as possible keeping an upright torso. Do not collapse your knee inwards.
Be aware that these drills might not fit you. We are all different, and in some cases, we may respond differently to a movement.
If the exercise does not create a change, ask for some advice from a professional trainer who will help you find new solutions. If you can’t see any improvement or, in the worst case, you feel pain during any exercise you may need to see a physiotherapist who can examine your ankle thoroughly.
How many reps and sets should you perform? You might need to work every day if you have limited movement. Look for a change during the set.
Perform between 10 and 20 reps per set, but if at some point you see no further improvements, you might also decide to move on to another drill.